UCL joint effort in combating phossy jaw

Several folders kept in the Royal Society of Chemistry contain letters addressed to Sir Henry Enfield Roscoe from academics, including the one I showed you previously (see “A letter written 105 years ago”).  The eminent Sir Roscoe actually graduated from UCL and joined his Alma Mater as Lecture Assistant. He then spent most of his life at Owens College, Manchester where he taught Prof Watson Smith. At the age of 51, Sir Roscoe received a knighthood. In his early 60s, he returned to London and was Vice-Chancellor of the University of London for six years.

As one of the most notable English chemists, he wrote quite a few popular textbooks. Chemistry in the Science Primer Series, first published in 1872, were widely adopted and translated into nine languages. It covered topics such as air, water, earth, metal and non-metal elements, including phosphorus. At that time, non-phossy-jaw-causing safety matches made from red phosphorus had been invented in Sweden but were not yet introduced to England. In his book, Sir Roscoe explained the mechanism of safety matches. The old matches contained inflammable white or yellow phosphorus and burned themselves whereas the new matches carried no phosphorus and safe red phosphorus was coated on the matchbox.

Both Sir Roscoe and Prof Smith promoted red phosphorus matches as they were safe from a chemical point of view. With that, they in effect also helped combat this dreadful disease. Fifteen years after Chemistry (Science Primers) was published, the Salvation Army opened the first red phosphorus match factory in England in 1891 and Prof Smith’s recommendation was found in the advertisement (see “Another link with UCL in history”). In 1906, the use of white or yellow phosphorus in matches was prohibited by the International Berne Convention and this saved match workers from the painful jaw necrosis.

I think this case demonstrated beautifully cross-disciplinary efforts in the face of such a complicated problem. In Victorian times, different disciplines worked independently towards phossy jaw and the match industry in different ways but they had still been successful. In the 21st Century, we work much more closely: my project collaborates with experts in genetics, statistics and dentistry from different countries. So, can we solve BONJ quicker than our predecessors? Fingers crossed!

  • Roscoe, Henry E. 1872. Chemistry. A. Miller.
  • Anon. International Labour Legislation. Taylor & Francis.
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